Alabama county unconstitutionally locks up poor people because they cannot afford bail, judge rules

People who were jailed simply because they could not afford bail in Cullman County, Alabama, won a significant victory today when a federal court judge ruled that the practice is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala entered a preliminary injunction order that prohibits Cullman County from continuing to discriminate against poor people through its bail system. Today’s injunction follows a memorandum opinion the judge entered last week, explaining why the county’s practices violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

As the court explained, “Cullman County’s discriminatory bail practices deprive indigent criminal defendants in Cullman County of equal protection of the law” and its justifications for using a bail schedule are “illusory and conspicuously arbitrary.”

This preliminary injunction will remain in effect while a lawsuit challenging the practice is fully resolved and permanent relief is ordered.

The lawsuit was brought by the SPLC and other civil rights organizations in March on behalf of Bradley Hester, who was arrested on July 27, 2017, on a misdemeanor charge of possession of drug paraphernalia. He was held on a $1,000 bond that he could not afford.

“Today was a big win for all Cullman County residents because no longer will the county be allowed to treat residents with means differently than those without in our criminal justice system,” said Samuel Brooke, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Jails are not meant to warehouse people who have not been convicted of a crime, particularly where, as here, the rich are able to buy their freedom and impoverished people are left to languish in jail. This form of wealth-based discrimination that keeps people in jail just because they cannot afford their freedom is unconstitutional. We will continue to fight to eliminate wealth-based justice.”

The Civil Rights Corps, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama joined the SPLC in filing the lawsuit.

To learn more about the fight to end wealth-based pretrial detention, click here.